Call me a geek, but I’m proud to say that I know my 14-digit bar code that is my password to reserving books online at the NYPL.
My mother introduced me to our town library when I was eyelevel with the bottom bookshelf in the children’s room. She’d deposit me there while she perused the new books in the adult section and pick me up on the way out when I’d proudly display my booty. When I was home ill, my biggest treat was getting a stack of books she had chosen for me, the smell of the plastic protective covers and glue healing in its own way. In my years as a regional actress, no matter what itty-bitty town I worked in, I found the university or local library and sweet-talked my way into getting a temporary library card.
The libraries that make up the New York Public Library system are a vast and diverse gang—a quick count of 44 libraries in Manhattan (including Roosevelt Island). My neighborhood library for the 13 years I lived on 9th Street was the tiny Ottendorfer next door to what was a medical drop-in center before NYU ate it up. In extreme temperatures, the Ottendorfer is crammed with visitors who have nowhere else to go to escape the cold or heat, reading newspapers, books, or just sitting enjoying the quiet. Mornings it bustles with strollers driven by caretakers seeking diversion for their charges. Three o’clock ushers in the bigger kids with their notebooks and homework sheets, and toward the end of the day, people on their way home from work drop off books or DVDs and pick up reserves. The rest of the day a cross-section of New Yorkers amble in for one of many purposes.
Having been brought up to love libraries, I have difficulty understanding how everyone doesn’t take advantage. But I am close to those who express dislike and even near disgust for the library and its books, and respect their feelings, for as I’ve written, reading is a personal and private activity. There are readers who want an indefinite amount of time, not worrying about a due date to finish their book, who then enjoy putting it on their bookshelf to remember. And then those who can’t help but be distracted by the stain on page 43 (“Is that spaghetti sauce or blood?") and abhor the idea of others having thumbed through the novel or memoir they are about to embark on. I have the opposite (perhaps perverse) reaction. I love to think about who has read this book before I have and who will read it afterward. A romantic notion but there is some tiny bond among us all. I even will think about years ago when I was in Paris sightseeing, and put my hand on a cool marble column in a medieval church and imagined all those who had placed their hands there before I had.